VIDEO: Nick Waplington – Working Process

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Nick Waplington is racing around, negotiating busy traffic on a rainy east London day. He currently lives in New York, but today he and his assistant are preparing and finalising the prints and framing for his upcoming exhibition, Working Process, behind-the-scenes photographs of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, which are now on show at Tate Britain.

As we drive down Old Street, he points to a building and says: “The first time I met Lee [McQueen] was at a party there in 1995. I was with Phil Poynter, at that time editor of Dazed & Confused, and the stylist Katy England, and we met Lee, Robbie Williams and Kate Moss.

“We drank all night and they ended up dressing up Kate with design ideas. Lee and I became good friends, and as a shy man he only really trusted me to photograph him.”

Waplington’s exhibition, which is curated by Simon Baker, shows some of the fruits of that friendship. McQueen commissioned Waplington in 2008 to document the preparation for what was to become the Horn of Plenty collection of Autumn/Winter 2009, one of his most critically acclaimed, referencing key moments in fashion history and his own previous collections, presented on the runway in Paris, together with a black-sprayed rubbish tip.

Waplington was given total creative freedom, yet the project is essentially a collaboration between the photographer and fashion designer; the book was finished in 2010, when McQueen sequenced the images just before he died. Waplington has stayed faithful to his edit but decided to wait a respectful time before having the book published.

It’s seemingly worlds away from the glamour of this fashion milieu, but Waplington’s creative trajectory began on the Broxtowe housing estate in Nottingham when Margaret Thatcher was still in power. His father had grown up on the estate and his grandfather still lived there so, while studying photography at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), Waplington started taking pictures there. He documented two families for five years, capturing the lives of those who had been rendered unemployable and forced to rely on a begrudging welfare state.

Thatcher proudly announced that there was “no such thing as society” in an interview for Woman’s Own in 1987; photographing the living rooms of these two families, Waplington shot a microcosm of working class life under her political regime. Shot before the rise of generic Ikea furniture and large plasma TV screens, Living Room was an attempt to show life honestly, without condescension, as was the general attitude of British documentary photography of the time. “I was inspired by the colour work of Paul Graham, Martin Parr and Tom Woods; I liked their aesthetic, though not necessarily what they photographed. I found their approach to be too anthropological,” says Waplington.

“I’m a middle-class boy from Surrey who wanted to show the warmth of a working-class family, and make work with less distance, and a sense of humour, that showed the best in people.”

As such, it’s almost a precursor to the reality TV shows that would later record the masses for the entertainment of the masses, I suggest, without devaluing the work. “Actually, I did make a film at the time for Geo TV that was screened in Germany and France in 1992,” says Waplington. “I shot it on Hi-8 video and I’ve still got the master tapes somewhere.”

Waplington ended up publishing the project as a book, with introductions from Richard Avedon and John Berger. The fact that they got involved is testament to Waplington’s talent, but also his sheer nerve – he approached Avedon with his project when the American was being awarded an honorary degree at Trent Polytechnic, and Avedon got in touch a few weeks later to say how much he liked it, “so eventually I asked him if he would write something for the book”. Around the same time, Waplington was in a bar in Zurich with his dad when “in walks John Berger”, so he seized the chance to approach him too. “I told neither of them that the other was writing an introduction,” he laughs. “When the book came out, Avedon was fine with it, but I never heard from Berger again.”

Waplington graduated from Trent with a first but he didn’t have an easy time of it, clashing with the head of the department, Euan Duff, well known at the time for his 1971 publication How We Are. “His was the work of more traditional black-and-white photojournalism and I really didn’t like ‘concerned photography’ – I couldn’t see the point,” says Waplington. He believes he only got top marks because Duff had to retire early; he also believes he was accepted onto the MA Photography course at the Royal College of Art because Duff warned them off him, and for them, that was in Waplington’s favour.

Today, Waplington regards his early success with Living Room as “a bit of a dead weight around my neck – the problem of being a young starter, I suppose”. Like any artist, he’s more interested in the work he is doing now than in his past archive, though the intervening 28 years have been extremely productive. But, all the same, he’s worked with Phaidon on a re-issue of the project, with a larger edit of unseen images. He ended up taking photographs on the Broxtowe estate for 15 years in total, he says, and only stopped because he noticed the mood start to change. “It became more violent as drugs became harder, heroin mainly,” he says.

Words by Michael Grieve, film by Jon Max Spatz. The full feature is published in the May issue of BJP. See more of Nick’s work hereStay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.